Monday, February 18, 2008

Ecumenical Discussions

There are many, as of late, who think that unity in the Church should be found in the first four ecumenical councils. Besides the fact that this is arbitrary (why not the first five? Or the first three? Why only the first four?), it misses the point that the person and work of Christ can never be separated.

Allow me to explain. The first four ecumenical councils deal primarily with the person of Christ. That is, they develop who Christ is. Is he divine or human or both? What is his relation to the father? How many wills does the person of Jesus have? These are but a few of the questions that these ecumenical councils sought to answer.

Whereas, questions about his work (what he did) were given a cursory treatment in relation to the depths these councils went with the person of Christ. They did not develop the significance of the cross, for example. What was the death of Jesus for? Why did he have to die on a cross? Why all the blood? What is justification? What is propitiation? Most of these questions were not dealt with at these councils and if they are the answers are hardly as deep as the Christian Church needs them to be.

This raises the question, why are we to be united on the person of Christ and not on his work? Or even more fundamental, how can Jesus be separated into these parts? Sure we can make the distinction between the person (who he is) of Christ and the work (what he did), but we cannot separated them—they are two sides of the same coin. Those, I would submit, who try to find unity in the ecumenical councils are in fact separating Christ’s person from his work. Since we are to have unity (which I am a huge advocate for), I suggest that we have unity around the whole Jesus, his person and his work.

Gordon Fee in his new book, Pauline Christology, discusses this very point that Jesus cannot be broken into parts.

The attempt to extract Christology from Paul’s letters apart from soteriology is like asking a devout Jew of Paul’s era to talk about God in the abstract, without mentioning his mighty deeds of creation and redemption. Although one theoretically may theologize on the character and “person” of God on the basis of the revelation to Moses on Sinai, a Jewish person of Paul’s’ era would hardly imagine doing so. What can be know and said about God is embedded in the story in such a way that God’s person can never be abstracted out of the story. Whatever else, God is always “the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob.”


  1. Josh,

    I'm not sure exactly who you have in mind when it comes to the first three councils, but I am in large agreement with regard to the seeming arbitrariness of the dividing line.

    If anything, receiving the conciliar church of the late antiquity/early medieval period is an ecclesiological rather than a precisely christological or soteriological move. For this reason many Anglicans (of which I am one) and the Orthodox will draw upon the first seven councils as setting forward a more or less normative Christian faith and practice. The reason here is the more or less undivided nature of the Orient and Occident and thus the genuinely catholic (i.e. "universal") nature of its conciliar decision making.



  2. Actually, I don't know anyone for whom the cut off is the third ecumenical council. This would take us only to Ephesus (431), stopping short of Chalcedon (451), thus leaving the Chalcedonian Definition out of the mix. Consequently, stopping at the third ecumenical council would include a condemnation of Nestorianism while leaving the heresy of Eutyches untouched. This would indeed be arbitrary in the extreme.

    I personally would hold that the first six ecumenical councils ought to be the basis for ecumenical discussion. And as the fifth and sixth are elaborations on the fourth, the Chalcedonian definition is sufficient to include the decrees of the fifth and sixth, properly understood. The seventh council I hold to not have been truly ecumenical, as it was disputed by a large portion of the Western Church at the time and to this day is not recognized as such by a vast portion of Christendom.

    We've discussed whether or not the Creeds touch sufficiently on the work of Christ before, and I'd rather not get into that again here. Let it simply be said that all those who hold to the orthodox doctrine of the Creeds hold that the sin of man is so severe that God had to become man, suffer, die, and rise from the dead to redeem mankind from sin, death, and the devil. These are the realities of our redemption which are confessed in our Creeds, rooted in the person and work of Christ, to which all orthodox Christians hold.



  3. Johnathan,

    You are right, I miss spoke. I meant the first four covenants. I will edit the post to indicate this mistake. Thank you for pointing this out.

    Why do you stop at the sixth council?

    Why do these councils go so deep into the person of Christ and not the work? Or asked another way, how is it that a person who says Christ has only one will is not a Christian, but if they say that Christ's death simply was a moral example, is a Christian?

    If you want to pass on any of these, that is fine. If anyone else want to pick up this discussion, that is also fine.

  4. Josh,

    I already explained why I would stop at the sixth council.

    I didn't think this post was addressing who is and is not a Christian, but rather what should be the basis of ecumenical discussion. Asking who may rightly be labelled a Christian is another question entirely from asking what should be the foundation for ecumenical discussion.

  5. Johnathan,

    Thank you for you response.

    First, I am not sure where you said why you hold the ground you do for ecumenical discussions. I think you are referring to your second paragraph, but I do not see that as an answer. Sorry, I must be dense. If you do not want to go any further on this I am fine, but I do not understand your view.

    Second, I think that this may be the fundamental issue between us and that is, I would say that the only way to have any ecumenical discussion is with other believers.

    That is to say, that when I speak of ecumenical discussions, I am speaking of inter-Christian discussions.

    So to ask my question again, this time you can remove the question from this context, I would like to know what you think about it.

    What do you think is the eternal state of a person who holds to the idea that Christ has only one will? What about a person who holds to the death of Christ as only a moral example.

  6. Guys,

    Speaking for myself, I think that disputing the catholicity of Nicea 2 is a deeply problematic plank to walk. The iconoclastic belief that icons violate the second commandment either stems from a failure to recognize Nicea 2 as a development from and application of the christology of the the prior councils or (in its Reformation incarnations particularly) a failure to interact with the conciliar ecclesiastical authority establishing that application as a necessary consequence of revelation.

    Theodore the Studite, John of Damascus, and Maximus the Confessor really pin this down, I think.

    Regarding the later points about a hypothetical monothelete or pelagian, I would want to clarify whether said person holds these positions as a heretic or in ignorance. It seems to me that both heresies were widely held prior to their condemation and only became damnable as they were held in defiance.

    Remember Augustine was quite willing to accept the validity of donatist baptisms but believed those baptisms to only be beneficial in a salvific sense by their orientation to the church catholic. In other words, it is not the absence/ignorance of doctrinal precision (as baptism) that damns you; it is only the despising of it.


  7. Josh,

    I don't know how else to put it. I already stated that I, in agreement with majority of Protestant communions, hold that there are only six councils which are truly ecumenical. This is the decisive point for me.

    Fr. Pahls raises some valid points concerning Nicea II, and I agree with him in general about the dangers of iconoclasm. I am no iconoclast, and I likewise believe that Hieria (754) took things too far on the other end. Nicea II was in some ways a reaction against this insipid iconoclasm. But I am on the whole in agreement with the council of Frankfurt that sanctioning the worship of icons (qualifications concerning different forms of worship aside) takes things a bit too far.

    As for your second question, I am on the whole in agreement with Michael. There is a difference between holding a defective view out of ignorance and holding it in defiance.

    I would argue actually that one cannot hold to a moral influence theory of the atonement while holding to the doctrine laid down in the Creeds. The eternal Logos became man in order to suffer, die, and rise from the dead precisely so that we could be delivered from sin, death, and the devil. This is the doctrine of the Creeds, and it provides us with far more than a "moral influence." Also, I'm not aware of any ecclesial body which does hold to the Creeds as their doctrinal standard while also allowing for a moral influence theory of the atonement. I could be wrong here, but this is something to consider.

    The reason I believe that the Creeds ought to be the foundation for ecumenical discussion is not because I believe that they ensure that everyone who holds to them is a genuine believer. I actually find such questions as who is eternally "in" and who is eternally "out," when we are talking about those who are members of the body of Christ and confess belief in Christ and his Cross and resurrection as their only hope of salvation, to be somewhat problematic. However, I believe that in discussions for the purpose of unity and understanding we must take those things which we hold in common as having been determined by the Church universal prior to the divisions of Christendom, as our jumping off point. Things such as atonement theories, having not been determined by an council of the entire Church, need to be discussed and settled for true concord to exist. But that will never happen if they are never discussed. And discussion will never happen if all we ever do is pontificate to each other about how indisputably right we are, and how wrong the other is. The better route to take in my view is to say: "Here are those things which we hold in common. Let's try to move on from here." This doesn't mean compromising our own convictions. But it does mean being open to learn from other Christians and consider the possibility that they may have some things right.

    The moral influence theory is something I would not compromise on, not because I necessarily think that the theory which I hold (substitution) is the only possible valid articulation of the atonement, but because holding the Cross to be nothing more than a mere moral influence strikes at the heart of the Gospel. And this is the case whether we are talking about biblical articulations of the Gospel, or whether we are talking about the Apostles', Nicene, and Chalcedonian Creeds. God did not come down from heaven and become a man in order to simply influence us. He did so "for us and for our salvation." Likewise, he was crucified "for us," was raised from the dead, and was granted all authority, being "seated at the right hand of the Father," from whence "he shall come again with glory." This work of his has created the Church and has brought about "the remission of sins," which gives us hope in looking forward to "the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come."

    Seems to me a bit more than moral influence. Certain dynamics of the atonement can be open for discussion. But in my opinion the moral influence theory is ruled out by the Creeds.

    But then again, as I said above, we've discussed all these things before.

  8. "There is a difference between holding a defective view out of ignorance and holding it in defiance."

    I'm tempted to agree with this, but there seems to be one underlying question that bothers me: "Defiance of what?" Defiance of the council? Defiance of Scripture? Defiance of the majority of the Christian community? The idea of defiance being what makes an error damnable implies a certain level of authority for the one being defied. Just my two cents.

  9. I'm glad you liked my article over at Greenbaggins.

    But you are right about the arbitrariness of making the ecumenical creeds *the* boundaries of Christian orthodoxy. While they are necessary, they are not sufficient.

    To draw the lines in this manner is arbitrary for no other reason than it fails to let *Scripture* determine what doctrines are vital for the faith and what are not.

  10. Adam,

    Proximately speaking, the issue would be defiance of the council. More central, however, would be defiance of the bishop who symbolizes the unity of the church through his recognition of communion with other bishops.

    When the controversies were being hashed out in Late Antiquity, it was always the defiance or submission to the council that was at stake. The underlying commitment to bishops who submitted to the majority report as bearing faithful witness to revelation was assumed. The ecclesiology inherent in this configuration of things is important to grab hold of for without it there will always be those wondering where the scriptures figure in.

    Everyone-Arians, Nestorians, Modalists, Donatists, Pelagians, Monophysites, Monothelites, and the catholic orthodox alike-thought they were being faithful to the apostolic witness. By 325 few if any possessed all the books of the New Testament and many possessed books that later were not part of the canon. The assimilation-promulgation of a single doctrine, liturgy, and scripture really only happens in earnest after the conversion of Constantine so many rural bishops at Nicea would likely have found David's appeal to Scripture as the determiner of "what doctrines are vital" unintelligible. How can that question even begin before there is consensus regarding which books are canonical?

    Of course that question is similarly unintelligible for me today as I have been involved in biblical studies since 1990 and have yet to locate a spelled-out "hierarchy of doctrines" in the Scriptures. I don't doubt that such a hierarchy exists, but I note that it is usually established by appeal to a concilliarly-defined catholic core of the faith and orbits around the doctrines of the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, the divinity and animating power of the Holy Spirit, the Church with her sacraments, and the Resurrection of the dead.


  11. Jonathan,

    Thank you for the great comments!!

    You said this: "But it does mean being open to learn from other Christians and consider the possibility that they may have some things right."

    It is this comment that most bring to heart the issue I am trying to show and that is, you call a person a Christian if they hold to the ecumenical councils (we can argue about how many later), why? Why do you make them the only definition of Christianity? I must agree with David Gadbois who said, "[the creeds]are necessary, they are not sufficient [boundaries of Christian orthodoxy]."

    This is the point I am trying to make. One cannot deny the creeds and be in the body of Christ. I am try to argue that the same standard that is used for the person of Christ (the creeds to great deepths go on this), be used on the work of Christ.

    To my mind this is the biblical thing to do. Paul puts the gospel up as part of the definition of the body of Christ; he makes the gospel definitional to table fellowship. Whatever the gospel is, I am sure we can both agree that it includes a deep and robust notion of the cross.

    Thank you for the great, Christian, conversation.


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